Artist Jean-Michael Basquiat became a member of the infamous 27 Club in 1988 when he died from a drug overdose, joining stars like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Kurt Kobain and Amy Winehouse after. Together with numerous others, the much-lamented lost talent of the 27 Club represents a group reaching the height of their power and abruptly cut short. Basquiat’s work as a painter, graffiti artist and musician is celebrated in a new exhibition at the Barbican which, now thirty years on, demonstrates Basquiat’s role in using art to communicate the politicised anger of America’s poorest communities and their recognition of the now-empty American Dream.
One of the most revealing aspects of the Barbican’s excellent new show is how carefully it builds the case for Basquiat’s influence on modern art, and how the simplicity of the surface appearance of his art belies a considerable depth, understanding and passion for a wider-range of subjects. Starting on the upper level of the Gallery, Curators Dieter Buchhart and Eleanor Nairne walk the viewer through Basquiat’s life, represented through his pictures, from his early days as an anonymous graffiti artists leaving pithy statements across New York, to his emergence onto the 80s club scene, mingling with Madonna and other recognisable faces at the The Mudd Club, an important meeting place for a particular wave of young, disenfranchised creatives, and becoming friends with his hero Andy Warhol.
But this is more than a chronologized life-story, and in the lower galleries, the Curators skilfully unpick the huge range of influences and knowledge that infuse Basquiat’s work in several themed areas intended to explain the deep research, use of symbolism and cultural markers that are referenced again and again in his work. Taken together, they result in a strong sense of the context in which his work was created, as well as its development over time, and the complex relationship between his own self-image and the layers of meaning beneath the surface. The result is one of the most intelligently considered and genuinely insightful exhibitions you will see this year.
For Britain and America, the late 1970s / early 1980s was a period of economic uncertainty, deprivation and political instability. Long before the financial boom of the 80s, people suffered as large-scale industries started to close due to overseas competition, strikes and protest became more frequent, and there was a sense that traditional structures were breaking-down across society, and not for the better. It was a time when the gap between rich and poor felt wider than it ever had, and the process of social decay, initiated by the debt-ridden aftermath of the Second World War was in its death throes.
Into this space came of wave of young musicians and artists whose work, even now, still feels full of the anger, fear and disillusion of those days. Rebellious bands like The Jam (who were the subject of an excellent exhibition at Somerset House in 2015) and The Clash, and artists like Basquiat provided a social record of the failure of their parent’s generation to resolve the outcome of war, and the desire to speak-up for those without an artistic outlet for their impotence. The punk aesthetic that feeds in to Basquiat’s work became a way to envision those feelings of powerlessness, using a deceptively simple style or creating a “tag” for his graffiti creations that generalise the social comments he’s making. These are the work of one or two men, but the voice of many.
And you see this again and again in the photographs of his graffiti statements, scrawled across garage doors, walls, door frames and windows crying out for an end to the facile, drudgery of 9-5 work or the externally imposed expectations of society to behave in a particular way. In the second room entitled ‘Samo©’, the Barbican have collated an insightful series of images of these slogans and declarations created by Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz under the character of Samo©, that peppered parts of New York in 1978. Like waiting for a new Banksy to appear, the Samo© pieces touched on the pointlessness of life, ‘for those of us who merely tolerate civilization’ and the sense that each day is just ‘another way 2 kill some time’. Taken together in this room, they are a remarkable outpouring of fury but offer unique access to the ideas that drove the rest of Basquiat’s work.
A sense of community was also important, bringing together others who felt the same and helped to enhance Basquiat’s work which the Barbican demonstrates in the next two rooms on the Canal Zone loft party where he met several like-minded people who he went on to work with, and on display are the colour-photocopied postcards he made with Jennifer Stein that use 3-D objects, layering and collage to create a series of striking pieces that mock the obsession with brand and image that dominated America at the time. Likewise, his frequent appearance at The Mudd Club put Basquiat right at the centre of the underground scene, where he performed as a musician and there are various images from this period which give the viewer a strong impression of Basquiat’s lifestyle.
Passing through a documentary he made which shows the desperate poverty of New York and a trip to LA that resulted in the acidic yellow ‘Hollywood Africans’  which satirises the empty wealth of an area built on slavery and references the enduring racism of film, the section on Basquiat’s time with Warhol is one of the best in the show. Most fascinating is the double portrait ‘Dos Cabezas’  in which Basquiat has inserted a highly simplified self-portrait with wild hair next to a much more flattering and considered Piccaso-esque image of Warhol. It shows the beginning of Basquiat’s desire to reduce his own image to a symbol, increasingly simplifying his appearance in pictures until he is reduced to a silhouetted figure or just a crown of dreadlocks. This picture tells us something about the way Basquiat saw himself and, despite his simplistic style, that the image of Warhol proves he had a talent for anatomical drawing, more of which we discover downstairs in the exhibition.
Having established his style and the world as he experienced it, the second part of the exhibition delves deeper into Basquiat’s continued self-education and the ways in which he incorporated broad interests into his work. From previous shows, including the excellent Constable exhibition at the V&A, we know that artists have always looked to their predecessors to learn the fundaments of perspective, shape and colour, and a whole section is dedicated here to Basquiat’s attention to art history.
Alongside original copies of his books, Basquiat’s detailed anatomical images draw on the work of another hero in ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s Greatest Hits’ , classical elements are picked up from Titian, and Manet, while the semi-abstract style comes from Picasso and Matisse. As well as ‘Untitled (Pablo Picasso)’ , an eponymously titled portrait of the young Picasso with strong jawline wearing the striped red jersey of his later years, artists’ names appear like graffiti in several other pictures displayed here.
This is a technique Basquiat uses repeatedly, whether he’s hailing the heroes of early Jazz like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, figures from Greek tragedy or Old Testament Christianity, or Voodoo symbols, his work in the second half of the exhibition is detailed and intriguing, displaying an astonishing range of influences. Pieces such as the triptych ‘Ishtar’  or ‘Glen’  are like maps covered in little notes, drawings and images as all of the information in his head spilled onto the canvas. It’s the kind of detail that Grayson Perry has become known for more recently, as both artists attempted to capture a particular theme or period.
It ends with more of Basquiat’s notebooks and an examination of his engagement with classic film, both in its ongoing influence and its rather stilted portrayal of black lives which still feels particularly pertinent. Aspects of Basquiat’s work may utilise the childlike doodles of the untrained artist, but as you wander through this exhibition, something much deeper than that emerges. The curators have done well to convey not just what life was like in a particularly downtrodden area of New York, filled with creative people living an underground existence, but how these things shaped the work of an artist who continually strove to read and understand more to give his pieces political backbone. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Basquiat: Boom for Real is worth a chance, and by the end you’ll understand why his death at the age of just 27 feels like an abrupt conclusion for an artist with plenty more to say.
Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican until 28 January. Tickets are £16 with concessions available. Please note the Barbican now has a no bags policy (not even small handbags) in the Art Gallery so leave extra time to queue for the cloakroom. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1